Review: The U.S. Civil War Through a Cannoneer's Sights

What the Private Saw The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet

When I saw the announcement of the publication of What the Private Saw: The Civil War Letters & Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet, I requested a review copy from the publisher. It looked like it would be an interesting read and great addition to my military history reading collection. I was correct on both counts.

Editor Larry Edwards has created a compelling story of one soldier's view of the Civil War based on Sweet’s letters to family and friends, and his diary entries, with occasional historical narrative to put Sweet's comments in context. The book is both expansive and microscopic at the same time. Sweet, an artilleryman, fought in every major battle of the Eastern Theater of war with the exception of First Manassa/Bull Run. Yet this is not the panoramic view of the general, but the tunnel vision of the ordinary soldier, extending not much further than the sights of his rifle or, in Sweet's case, his cannon.

The reader follows Sweet's army career from his first cocksure days as a soldier to his growing disillusionment with the war. Sweet’s letters and diary show his motivation for fighting had nothing to do with being anti-slavery; in fact, he disapproved of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Yet despite his war weariness, Sweet re-enlisted when his first enlistment expired, allowing him to serve throughout the remainder of the war, including the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s troops at Appomattox.

Sweet's letters and diaries also show that soldiering hasn't changed much in a century and a half; then as now, it is largely comprised of days and weeks of monotony spiked with hours of terror and horror. Most of Sweet’s diary entries discuss the routine mundaneness of daily army life—guard duty, policing camp, marches. The battles he took part in are mentioned almost as afterthoughts, as if they were too horrible to mention. In most cases they were.

However, the book does include a retrospective narration Sweet wrote of the Battle of Gettysburg. A member of Battery F, First Pennsylvania Light Artillery, also known as Rickett's Battery, Sweet took part in the bloody defense of the Union's right flank, known as the "fish hook." Like the fight at Little Round Top on the left flank, the successful defense of the fish hook by Pennsylvanian soldiers fighting on Pennsylvanian soil prevented the Confederates from rolling up the Union line.

As historical figures go, Private Sweet was a nonentity. But the writings he left behind provide an important insight to the lives and deaths of all those other nonentities who fought in the Civil War and, on the Union side, brought home victory.